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Asylum Seekers Vulnerable to Coronavirus

Asylum Seekers Vulnerable to Coronavirus

In the midst of a global pandemic, the wellbeing of all people is in everyone’s best interests. Yet asylum seekers are notably vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the insufficient support provided to them.

Today we saw headlines about the spread of Coronavirus in Greek refugee camps. We need to also ensure that refugees in Britain are protected as much as any other resident. 

Despite being designed as a safety net from destitution, the government’s provision of asylum support fails to fulfill its purpose. A study by Refugee Action found that many asylum seekers living on this support struggled to feed both themselves and their children, and could not afford essential items such as clothes or medicine. With COVID-19 constituting the most significant public health crisis in decades, the ability to access such essentials could not be more important.

Whilst charities play a monumental role in counteracting food poverty, their work is under threat due to the introduction of social distancing measures. Food parcels, supermarket vouchers and cooked meals are provided on a regular basis, but this tends to occur at either the homes of charity patrons or via other charity-organised drop-ins. With charity-run facilities such as these closing in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, asylum seekers face being cut off from a vital lifeline.

The housing provided to asylum seekers is also strikingly substandard, with frequent reports of issues such as mould, damp and poor ventilation. An investigation by Refugee Rights Europe raised concerns regarding the harmful impact of unsanitary conditions on children’s health, due to the occurrence of chest infections and other ailments. These findings were mirrored by those of the ICIBI, which revealed that children suffering from asthma were staying in houses with severe damp yet were not considered for relocation.

As those with respiratory conditions such as asthma are classed as ‘extremely vulnerable’ to Coronavirus, the poor-quality housing provided to asylum seekers places them at increased risk of infection.

Further to this, asylum accommodation is often extremely overcrowded. Refugee Rights Europe found that some female asylum seekers were forced to sleep in rooms containing up to eight other people, denying them the ability to properly self-isolate and therefore leaving them highly vulnerable to the transmission of the disease.

Presumably triggered by growing calls for action, the Home Office has announced that all asylum evictions are to be postponed for three months. In essence, this is positive, as it safeguards asylum seekers from the threat of homelessness at this dangerous time.

But it also demonstrates a total disregard for not only the problems caused by asylum accommodation but how these problems leave residents particularly exposed to COVID-19. If asylum seekers are to be adequately safeguarded from the virus, suspending evictions is simply not enough- finding better-quality accommodation must be part of the solution.

The correlation between destitution and ill-health cannot be overstated. In a British Red Cross study that focused on destitute asylum seekers in South Yorkshire, 59% of participants reported that their health had deteriorated over the past year. With the effects of Coronavirus proving notably severe for those with underlying health problems, destitution can be seen as placing asylum seekers under greater threat.

Regrettably, there are a number of barriers in place that prevent asylum seekers from accessing the treatment they need. One such barrier is cost- as part of the Conservatives’ ‘Hostile Environment’ policy, upfront charges were introduced into the NHS as a way of preventing undocumented migrants from accessing free healthcare. Whilst Coronavirus has been added to the list of communicable diseases- meaning that treatment is free regardless of immigration status- the fear of being charged still deters many destitute asylum seekers from seeking assistance.

In addition, there are other logistical costs associated with healthcare that preclude destitute asylum seekers from treatment. Speaking to the EHRC, one pregnant asylum seeker based in London said:

‘It costs nearly £20 to travel to the hospital. The distance to the hospital – it’s far!’

The current rate of subsistence provided to asylum seekers is just £37.75 per person per week. With this in mind, associated costs such as transportation and mobile phone credit are simply unaffordable.

If we are to collectively turn the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is of the utmost importance that all people are protected. To this end, asylum seekers must be provided with adequate housing, good-quality healthcare and a decent standard of living.

  • Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors in the UK and Ireland.